Language for COVID-19: German and Finnish

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A rare find of linguistic news in a blog concerning the Supreme Court:

"Relist Watch: Kalsarikännit edition", John Elwood, SCOTUSblog

SCOTUSblog is about the work of the Supreme Court of the United States.  The author must have a streak of the linguist in him, for he chose to  begin today's post with three paragraphs about language usage related to the coronavirus crisis.  Here they are:

As America begins its fourth week under quarantine with widespread working from home, we’ve begun noticing shifts in grooming, attire and behavior as many of us remain cooped up for weeks on end.

Because it’s often said that the Germans have a word for everything, it’s worth checking in with the people who gave us schadenfreude and weltschmerz to see what they have to describe the current crisis. Both hamsterkauf (“hamster buying” = panic shopping) and kummerspeck (“grief bacon” = excess weight from emotional overeating) are perfect words for the moment, even if the German word for “lockdown” (ausgangsbeschränkung) doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

But judging from the news of the week, it’s the Finns who have contributed the word of the moment: Kalsarikännit. If you’re wondering what it means, I can either refer to you a long essay about how “kalsari- … is the unconjugated root of the word kalsarit (underwear …),” combined with “the plural form kännit of the word känni (drunkenness …),” or I can show you this picture of Homer Simpson. When you’re making your post-apocalypse travel choices, just remember that the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants the world to know that this is a thing there.

Ah, there's bitter humor even in the woes brought upon us by the dreaded coronavirus, and it is through language that we bring such feelings to the surface.


Selected readings

[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. Anthony said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 10:17 pm

  2. J said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 11:05 pm

    I think you'll find that discussions of linguistic matters are very much a staple of Supreme Court discourse. High-level legal disputes often turn on the best interpretation of statutory and constitutional words and syntax, so there's a lot of fine-grained parsing required. (See also Bryan Garner.)

  3. Lydia said,

    April 8, 2020 @ 12:39 am

    While "Ausgangsbeschränkung(en)" (restriction(s) on going out) is the word used to describe the current regulations in Germany, it's sharply distinguished from a lockdown ("Ausgangssperre", prohibition on going out), at least in officialese.

  4. cameron said,

    April 8, 2020 @ 10:37 am

    "pants-drunkenness" really is a nigh-perfect translation of kalsarikännit, it's marred only by its having to be explained to North Americans who use the word "pants" in a much wider sense

  5. Michele Sharik Pituley said,

    April 8, 2020 @ 10:20 pm

    I agree with cameron. "pantsdrunk" works well in British English, but not so well in US/Canadian English.

    (I don't know how the rest of the Commonwealth uses "pants".)

  6. Adam G said,

    April 9, 2020 @ 3:38 am

    The german meme-game has been incredible during the outbreak. Something about "bleib daheim" or "blieb zu haus" just sounds better than the english "stay at home". The german language subreddits have a favoured meme of "spricht deutsch du hurensohn" (speak german you bastard). Which combines well with "bleib daheim" to form: "bleib daheim du hurensohn". See here for example:

  7. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 9, 2020 @ 5:26 pm

    Trying to reproduce the flavor of “pantsdrunk” when it does not mean “drunk while wearing slacks” may call for an alternate approach in the U.S. Since “briefsdrunk” and “boxersdrunk” don’t work as well, maybe “nekkiddrunk” would provide the same dense of disarray, or “couchdrunk” the same sense of laxity that “couch potato” implies.

    Is the stereotype of a person getting drunk at home always one involving males, particularly males less than fully dressed? Are there stereotypes of women drinking at home? (Not counting “closet alcoholic” since it applies to all secret drinkers.)

  8. Chas Belov said,

    April 9, 2020 @ 11:12 pm

    Is there a word for someone who just will not social distance? It seems every time I have to go out to pick up some necessary item somebody will not keep that six feet away. I was checking out and the cashier has a shield they have to reach around, and there was space beside the shield and a third party just rushed up and put their stuff down, endangering both the cashier and myself.

    A printable word, that is, that is specific to this phenomenon.

  9. Rodger C said,

    April 10, 2020 @ 7:13 am

    @Chas Belov: I've seen "covidiot."

  10. Luke said,

    April 10, 2020 @ 10:12 pm

    "Branch Covidians'

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